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Review: Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason, by Gary Powell.

death diaryThis less-than-cheerful and macabre title actually belies the light reading which exists between its covers. I say this, because there are 365 stories of between half to a page each. So the reading is easy and can be done in any order without losing any narrative thread. You may be on the train, bus stop, about to switch off the bedside lamp. Whatever: light reading. I love books like this.

The content, as described in the title, comprises one death-related story (mostly murders) for every single day of the year going way back in London’s history.

There are the high profile cases, as you would expect. The execution of Charles I at the Banqueting House; the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher at the Libyan Embassy; the murder by a down-on-his-luck rival of actor William Terriss outside the Adelphi Theatre; the Krays.

But for me it’s the more mundane, everyday tragedies which resonate. The landlady strangled and stabbed by her lodger; the heartbreaking story of a man who killed his own toddlers because he literally could not afford to feed his family – in a book where hangings abound, at least this tortured soul went to an asylum.

A great deal of these accounts fall between the mid 19th and mid 20th centuries. It is noticeable that the motive is so often tied to money – or the lack of it. Grinding poverty, money worries – they existed on a level that we would find difficult to comprehend today. The ultimate state sanction was not sufficient deterrent, clearly. The gallows at Wandsworth, Pentonville and elsewhere were kept rather busy, even to relatively recent times.

There are many stories of a man killing his wife or lover in a domestic, or very occasionally the other way around. As I say, on the face of it, mundane. So the danger is these accounts becoming a bit samey. In Death Diary, author Gary Powell – a retired Met officer of decades standing – skillfully avoids this with matter-of-fact narratives which are never boring and yet neither are they ever sensationalised. It’s a difficult one to explain, perhaps the policeman’s knack of succinctly delivering detail.

An excellent third London book from this author. It includes a short bibliography and “index of offenders” at the end and there’s a generous section of illustrations and photos in the middle. Recommended.


Death Diary: A Year of London Murder, Execution, Terrorism and Treason (288pp) by Gary Powell is published in paperback by Amberley with a cover price of £14.99. An author-signed copy was featured as London Historians monthly book prize for February 2017.

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Many people know about the Met’s so-called “Black Museum” at New Scotland Yard; it is usually mentioned in whispered tones. The lucky few will preen slightly when they tell you that they have somehow managed to visit. This semi-mythical status has arisen because it is a private museum – the Crime Museum – whose purpose, from 1902, has been a training aid for detectives. But the genesis of the collection dates from the 1860s when it became compulsory for all prisoners’ belongings to be kept in safe storage. Most of these items remained uncollected, not least, of course, from criminals who had been executed. They were subsequently augmented with actual real case objects and other crime-related ephemera.

Early Police Museum illustration ILN 1883

Early Police Museum illustration ILN 1883

Hence the collection comprises thousands of items dating back to before 1829. About a third of them have been selected by curators at the Museum of London to be displayed to the public for the first time in this new exhibition: Crime Museum Uncovered. We have items which range from as far back as folk hero Jack Sheppard to as recently as the Glasgow Airport bomber and his fire-scorched laptop computer. Notorious criminals including Crippen, the Krays, the acid bath murderer and baby-farm murderer Amelia Dyer. Not only the likes of them, but totally obscure criminals whose cases are no less fascinating.

As you enter, the first several rooms set the nineteenth century scene and are deliberately arranged as the early Crime Museum may have been, using period display cabinets. We have about ten death masks of prominent murderers from before photography had become established. We also have court room pen and ink likenesses of people on trial, whether for murder, fraud or other myriad offences. They are sublimely done, by the illustrator William Hartley, for me the hero of this show. The curators clearly agree for they have rightly featured dozens of his illustrations over a number of displays. Apart from the defendents, they include judges, lawyers, courtroom staff, detectives and witnesses. Sitting just this side of caracature, they capture the all too human personalities of those in the witness stand, by turn evil, raffish, noble as the case may be.

Period display case and William Hartley illustrations.

Period display case and William Hartley illustrations.

William Hartley Courtroom illustration of Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters on trial for baby farming, 1903 © Museum of London

William Hartley Courtroom illustration of Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters on trial for baby farming, 1903 © Museum of London

Capital Punishment: Execution ropes, 19th and 20th Century © Museum of London

Capital Punishment: Execution ropes, 19th and 20th Century © Museum of London

The main hall of the exhibition is arranged with murders – infamous or interesting or both – down the right hand side while the left side and main body of the space is devoted thematically to types of crime: burglary, theft, forgery, terrorism, espionage and so on. As crimes and criminals became more sophisticated – more devious one might say – so too has the technology and method of detective work come along leaps and bounds: photography, fingerprint profiling, identikit, intelligence gathering and of course in the 20C – the Internet and CCTV. Ultimately, though, detective work – as they frequently emphasise on TV police shows – comes down to good old fashioned evidence gathering of the most mundane sort, which for me is the most interesting. So there are plenty of seemingly everyday objects – particularly in the murder displays – of cap badges, buttons, cigarette tins, etc.

Counterfeiting and Forgery: Implements used for counterfeiting seized by Metropolitan Police © Museum of London

Counterfeiting and Forgery: Implements used for counterfeiting seized by Metropolitan Police © Museum of London

Personal possessions of Ronnie Biggs and other members of the Great Train Robbery gang recovered from their hideout at Leatherslade Farm, 1963 © Museum of London / object courtesy the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum

Personal possessions of Ronnie Biggs and other members of the Great Train Robbery gang recovered from their hideout at Leatherslade Farm, 1963 © Museum of London / object courtesy the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum

The badge of the Leicestershire Regiment that helped to convict David Greenwood of murder, 1918. Greenwood was convicted of raping and murdering 16 year old girl, Nellie Trew in February 1918. This badge was found at the crime scene. He denied having met Nellie but was found guilty and sentenced to death, commuted to life imprisonment. He was released in 1933 aged 36. But was he guilty of the crime? © Museum of London / object courtesy the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum

The badge of the Leicestershire Regiment that helped to convict David Greenwood of murder, 1918.  © Museum of London / object courtesy the Metropolitan Police’s Crime Museum

Murder bag: a forensics kit used by detectives attending crime scenes © Museum of London

Murder bag: a forensics kit used by detectives attending crime scenes © Museum of London

Terrorism: Shrapnel from an unexploded Fenian bomb found at Paddington Station 1884 © Museum of London

Terrorism: Shrapnel from an unexploded Fenian bomb found at Paddington Station 1884 © Museum of London

This exhibition has been very thoughtfully curated, giving a fascinating insight into detective work in London over nearly two hundred years. It features, inevitably, extreme violence of both the criminal and the state without glorifying either, and being extra-careful to avoid sensationalism (there is some Ripper stuff, apparently: if so, I never saw it). It successfully exposes the all-too-human and tragic elements of crime without excusing it. This was their stated aim and they have achieved it with honour, I feel.

The Crime Museum Uncovered is as good if not better than the Cheapside Hoard show of a few years back, the Museum of London at its very best. I congratulate the curators and urge you to go and see it for yourself.

The Crime Museum Uncovered runs from today, 9 Oct, until 10 April 2016. Adult tickets from £10 and there are many associated events through the run. We understand this weekend is already fully-booked.

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So wrote Charles Dickens in Bleak House.

In this Guest Post, Owen Davies and Louise Falcini from University of Hertfordshire explain how justice was conducted in the pubs of London during the 18C and 19C.  These are programme notes for our re-enactments of the Petty Sessions and the Coroner’s Inquest tonight and tomorrow evening at the George On the Strand. There are places available if you’re quick.

The inn or pub was central to the effective administration of local justice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – until the rise of police courts. In many communities the inn or pub was the only readily-available, large, indoor space where public events could take place. So auctions were commonly held in pubs and so were the petty sessions (the forerunner of magistrates’ courts) and coroners’ inquests. The proceedings were normally held in an upstairs or back room of the pub, sometimes with their own entrances so that the magistrate or coroner need not pass through the beery throng. But the sounds of conviviality and the smell of alcohol and tobacco smoke would have pervaded the proceedings. Pub justice was a nice little earner for the landlord, who benefitted from payment for the room and the increased custom petty sessions and inquests invariably brought, with locals and thirsty witnesses quenching their curiosity and thirst.

Petty Sessions

Local justice scenarios provided rich pickings for satirists and cartoonists.

Petty sessions were presided over by Justices of the Peace (magistrates) in the counties, gentlemen and local squires of social and financial standing, and in urban Middlesex merchants and tradesmen. For much of the 18th century the position was unpaid, for some the prestige of being a royal officer was enough, for others there was a necessity to charge fees leading to the Middlesex epithet of a ‘trading justice’. In London, the Middlesex Justices Act of 1792 created stipendiary or paid magistrates with salaries of £400 a year. The rest of the country followed suit in later decades. The Justices did not need to have formal legal training and printed guides were available to ensure they knew their remit and the parameters of their power. They sat without a jury and could dispense small fines, order whippings, impose time at the Bridewell or House of Correction (an institution in which inmates would perform some kind of menial work or hard labour), bind individuals to keep the peace, or merely publicly admonish an individual. More serious cases would be sent to the Quarter Sessions, also presided over by a panel of magistrates, but with a jury. Serious offences were dealt with at the Assizes, although in Middlesex and the City of London these cases were heard at Gaol Delivery Sessions held at the Old Bailey.

Petty Sessions

Inquests were not trials but the proceedings resembled them. They were presided over by a coroner and not a magistrate. Coroners, mostly lawyers by training, were required to enquire into the circumstances of a sudden or suspicious death and to investigate its cause. Inquests were held very quickly after death. The Coroner would issue a warrant to summon 24 ‘able and sufficient men’ to act as jurors. From these local men 12 would be selected and empanelled to form the jury. The coroner and jurors would be required to ‘view’ the body before they began to hear evidence. Unlike at a criminal trial, the members of the jury had the right to question witnesses. If the jury decided on a verdict of murder or manslaughter, then the case would be brought to the Assizes or for cases arising in the City of London and Middlesex – the Old Bailey.

Owen Davies & Louise Falcini
University of Hertfordshire, September 2013

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Full title: Murders of London: In the Steps of the Capital’s Killers by David Long.

murders of london david longLooking at the cover design on-line I had expected this to be a similar format as Long’s recent books, what might be called “sub-coffee table”. So I was rather surprised to find out that it’s a return to more pocket size at about five inches by six. The contents are arranged geographically in chapters, each of which in turn contain accounts of individual murders, or in some cases sprees (Nilsen, Jack the Ripper &c.).

With the exception of the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, most crimes covered in the book are from the mid-Victorian period and right up to 2006 (the radioactive assassination of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko). The enjoyment of reading such episodes stems from – let’s face it – prurience and voyeurism. But we learn much about the changes over the period in police, forensic science, the law, capital punishment and so on. I was quite surprised to discover, for example, that until the 1940s accomplices in murder were hanged side-by-side, occasioning hangmen like Albert Pierrepoint (who appears frequently in the book) to call in extra staff.

The crimes involve politics, espionage, domestic squabbles, bigamy, fraud, conspiracy – using weapons and methods from Cluedo and way beyond. They range from the famous and notorious (Lucan, Crippen) to the downright seedy. All, in one way or another, caught the imagination of the public via the press and yet most are now forgotten and hence well worth the reminder. I was fascinated to find out that west London retail magnate William Whiteley – a pillar of society to the outside world although less so to his own staff – was murdered in 1907 by a man who claimed to be his illegitimate son. Also, I had no idea that the toast of 1960s swinging London – Ossie Clark – met a violent end in 1996. Enough spoilers from me, but this book is crammed with rich stories such as these.

All the accounts are illustrated with contemporary photos by the author himself of the addresses where these crimes happened. Or where they still exist, for in many cases the original buildings have long disappeared. But one gets a sense of the sheer banality of the backdrops to these crimes – terraced housing, cheap lodgings etc. – but logically, how else could it be? However, when it comes to the acts themselves and their dramatis personae, one sees that each  is totally unique and utterly intriguing. Furthermore, they are delivered by Long in his usual elegant style.

If you’d like a taster, there’s a web site associated with the book, here.

Murders of London: in the Steps of the Capital’s Killers (256 pp) is published by Random House with a cover price of £12.99, although available for less. Warmly recommended.

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In the late 1780s, a violent pervert prowled the streets of London.

His strange and unique modus operandi was to stab his victims in the buttocks or thighs, all the while assailing them with a stream of filthy language. The women of the capital were understandibly terrified. These attacks occurred from May 1788 onwards. When the Monster (as he had become known) increased his attacks in the first months of 1790, the authorities became under increasing pressure to make an arrest. The problem was the huge variety of victim descriptions of the perpetrator. Short, tall, old, young, thin, stocky, vulgar, gentlemanly: there was hardly any consistency whatsoever.

London insurance magnate John Julius Angerstein put up a reward of £100 for the capture of the Monster resulting in a spate of false citizen’s arrests which simply confused matters further.

Eventually, one of the victims, Anne Porter, identified a man she saw in the street as the Monster and the man was detained and charged. His name was Rhynwick Williams, an unemployed and impecunious artificial-flower maker. At the trial, held at the Old Bailey, much of the evidence against Williams was contradictory or plain false. He had solid alibis for the Anne Porter and other attacks, he was supported by a host of glowing character references and even Angerstein himself was doubtful about his guilt. Despite all of this, Williams was found guilty.

But of what? The judge, Sir Francis Buller, could  not decide whether the crimes were felonies or misdemeanours, so referred the case to an appeal tribunal which decided that the crimes were misdemeanours. The upshot of this was that Williams had to be re-tried and the same farce was conducted for a second time, with the same result: guilty.

Williams was sentenced to six years in prison at Newgate. It would seem that his stay there was not especially unpleasant. His unsought notoriety meant that he had plenty of visitors and he picked up his trade of making artificial flowers which he was able to sell. The happy ending to this tale is that his girlfriend Elizabeth bore him a son, conceived in the prison. The boy was baptised at St Sepulchre across the road, and after his release in 1796, Williams and Elizabeth were married.

You can read more about the Monster here. A more complete and entertaining account can be found in Newgate, London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, p192-204. There is also a whole book dedicated to this case: The London Monster: A Sanguinary Tale by Jan Bondeson.

Update: I have found several images of Rhynwick Williams, but unfortunately they are in the hands of Getty Images, whose prices start at £34 a pop. So go take a look on their site, here.

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jack sheppard

Jack Sheppard, engraving by George White, after original portrait by James Thornhill (Wm. Hogarth's father-in-law)

It can’t have escaped your notice that I’ve been on a bit of a London gaols thing of late, notably Newgate prison.

Today marks the execution at Tyburn in 1724 of Jack Sheppard, possibly Newgate’s most notorious inmate, a huge celebrity in his day. He met his fate aged just 22. A promising carpenter by trade, he became a common criminal, capturing the imagination of Londoners through a string of audacious escapes in the brief six month period leading up to his execution.

Escape #1. Having been betrayed by his brother Tom, a fellow-felon and partner in crime, Sheppard was initially set up by Jonathan Wild, a criminal gang-master and fence, who nonetheless operated on both sides of the law, working for the other side when it suited him. Sheppard was invited to play a game of skittles, there apprehended and locked up in St Giles Roundhouse. Within three hours he had broken through the ceiling and lowered himself to the ground from the room above using the classic rope of bedclothes. He made his getaway, still manacled.

Escape #2. Sheppard is caught pickpocketing on 19 May and banged up in St Ann’s Roundhouse.  He is joined there by his girlfriend  Elizabeth Lyon (who was instrumental in leading him into the criminal life in the first place). They are transferred to New Prison, Clerkenwell,  where they spend some days filing through their manacles. Once again, on 25 May, Sheppard uses the knotted bedclothes method for the both of them to depart the building, negotiate a twenty foot wall, and make their escape.

By now, Sheppard’s exploits are reaching a wide audience.

Escape #3. Sheppard immediately resumed his career but once again was betrayed by his associates, including Jonathan Wild. He was arrested on 23 July and charged with burglary. On 12 August, he was convicted and sentenced to death, the date of execution being set for 4 September . This time he found himself an inmate of Newgate prison. On 31 August, he had visitors, who distracted the guards sufficiently for Sheppard to remove the bars of the window and get away yet again, this time disguised as a woman.

Escape #4. Sheppard was re-captured on 9 September in Finchley and returned to Newgate. He now had super celebrity status and received dozens of admiring and curious visitors. This time he was incarcerated in a strong room,  manacled and chained much more securely and furthermore padlocked to metal staples attached to the floor. Nonetheless, he laughed at his gaolers’ efforts and was right to do so. On 15 October, Sheppard managed to remove his handcuffs and chains, but still manacled broke through a series of six doors, gaining access to the prison chapel, then via the roof of the prison itself and onto the roof of a neighbouring house. He broke through the house and escaped out of the front door.

Once again, Sheppard sought refuge in the country, and once again was drawn back to the city. He was apprehended one last time, the authorities on this occasion taking no chances, chaining him to heavy weights under 24 hour guard. He spurned the opportunity for a reduced sentence in return for shopping his accomplices, and on 16 November, was hanged. The crowd that gathered for his final procession and execution was estimated at 200,000, over ten times the throng for a high-profile despatch.

Jack Sheppard became an instant legend. Already he had had his portrait painted in prison and been the subject of dozens of pamphlets and newssheets. After death he was the object of biographies, ballads, plays and musicals, not least The Beggars’ Opera.

There is excellent coverage on Jack Sheppard at Wikipedia,  here.

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